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Full text of "Mind's Eye April 1980"

The Mind's Eye 



Volume 4 Number 2 



NORTH ADAMS STATE COLLEGE 



The Mind's Eye is a journal of review and comment 
published four times during the college year 
at North Adams, Massachusetts 01 247 
Copyright © 1980 by North Adams State College 



April 1980 

EDITORIAL BOARD 

W. Anthony Gengarelly 
Stephen A. Green 
R. Michael Haines 
Charles Mclsaac 
Thomas A. Mulkeen 
Ellen Schiff 

EDITOR 

Charles Mclsaac 



Thomas A. Mulkeen 3 Higher Education in the Coming Age of Limits 

In the hundred years that it took the United States to 
become a world power higher education supplied the 
professional and managerial talent to run the economy and 
lead society. Now, with the economy in trouble and with 
society in a postindustrial phase, the colleges and 
universities are in danger of losing their position. 



VERSE 

Herschel Shohan 5 Hillside Cemetery, North Adams 



FILMS 

Robert Bishaff 7 Last Summer in Vietnam . . . North Carolina . . . Three Mile Island 
Four films that deal with contemporary American issues. 



COMMENT 

Charles Mclsaac 2 The Editor's File 

Soccer in a Puddle of Water 

The Special Commission Concerning State and County 
Buildings begins public hearings. 



The Editor's File 



Soccer in a Puddle of Water 



Investigators for the special commission are reported 
to have taken test borings of 3 playground at one 
state college. The field was supposed to be underlaid 
with six to nine inches of gravel, but the borings showed 
no gravel was there." This item appeared in a Boston 
Globe story March 17 summarizing some details to be 
disclosed in the public hearings (now in progress) of the 
Special Commission Concerning State and County Build- 
ings, a legislatively appointed body which has been 
investigating corruption and fraud in Massachusetts con- 
struction programs for more than a year. 

The state college is North Adams. The "playground" is 
its soccer field where, in the gathering darkness of a cold, 
muddy afternoon in 1978, the North Adams State College 
soccer team won the New England Division 111 Champion- 
ship. A long trail of tears led to the opening of the field 
that fall, but it was as nothing compared to the flood of 
lamentations that followed. Behind the stands the spec- 
tator could note an open pool of water, close enough to 
jump into, a foot or so below the level of the playing 
surface. It was the water table. The autumn rains came 
and, having no place to go, stood on the field. Games were 
ruined. Somehow North Adams kept winning, perhaps 
because they were used to sloshing around. But it was an 
embarrassment to bring good teams like Babson and 
Brartdeis onto that damp field of battle. What would they 
think? That they didn't get a fair shake, obviously. Nor did 
our own athletes — one of whom, despite all, was the 
leading scorer in the United Suites that year and came ever 
so close to a new national record. 

Like every other institution of learning, North Adams 
has a library. It was completed in 1970. Two-thirds of 
its study stations are on the top floor. For ten years 
students have worn out the stairs coming down to tell the 
person in charge that it's "cold tip there." The person in 
charge is sympathetic, and secretly despairing. Nothing 
can bedoneabout it. The heating system does not respond 
to adjustment. It wasn't, apparently, built right, Ulti- 
mately good-natured with the resilience of youth, tile 
students graduate anyway and go on to pursue fruitful 
lives. But what are their memories of their college's 
library? Cold. 

Cold, too, will be their assessment of the Common- 
wealth's concern for them as they open the newspaper 
these next three months and read the sorry tale of graft on 
whose altar they and their fellows in public higher 
education were sacrificed: the $11 million power plant 
that doesn't work, the unsafe library waiting four years to 
he occupied, the parted walls, leaking roofs, falling bricks. 
Warm memories and gratitude sustain the body of alumni, 



bring them back to their college, open their pocketbooks, 
prompt them to spread the good word. Doughty, indeed, is 
the North Adams graduate who transcends the feeling of 
having been cheated by venal men in government and 
keeps up the old school tie nonetheless, 

And t old are their thoughts about the niggardliness of 
their treatment at the hands of the legislature in other 
respects — the lack of educational equipment and ma- 
terials, the dearth of scholarships, the plain unconcern, 
even contempt, they have endured. The lordliness of it all 
would depress the most earnest seeker after truth. Our 
mission is to give them a vision of the good society. Most 
of us were introduced to adulthood with a good educa- 
tional experience, whether public or private; our mem- 
ories are warm. We try to communicate this. But we do not 
altogether succeed because we, too, are wrestling with the 
Commonwealth and, if the truth be told, are skeptical of 
the interest of the People in the education of their 
children. If the citizens of Massachusetts will continue to 
sit still for the historic despoliations for which our state is 
disesteemed, the chance of an influx of grace is slim. But 
we can hope that the Great and General Court will come 
to understand that the young generation, its most precious 
resource, has been short-changed. Only fifteen years have 
passed since the Willis-Harrington Act charted a useful 
future for public higher education in Massachusetts, The 
promise of that well-intended legislation has been 
dimmed by a declining economy and political astig- 
matism alike. A sound system of higher education can 
survive the economy. But it cannot deal with the effects of 
corruption; to education, this is poison at the root. 

The Special Commission Concerning State and 
County Buildings is chaired by John William Ward, 
a historian and the former president of Amherst College, a 
man who knows what a good building, a playable athletic 
surface, and honor in educational governance are. He has 
already had to fight a hard (and successful) battle to keep 
the commission alive. Better than most, Mr. Ward will 
understand the cynicism which overtakes the academic 
community when those in public trust hold it hostage 10 
self-interest; ami, if we read him accurately, he will make a 
tenacious attempt to repair the morale as well as the 
buildings of the public universities, colleges, and com- 
munity colleges of Massachusetts. Besieged by conflicting 
interests, he can depend on firm support from few in 
government because his commission's findings will touch 
so many, from top to bottom. We who have a large stake 111 
his enterprise think of him kindly and wish him well. We 
could even write him a letter. 

— Charles Mclsaac 



2 



College and University in the Changing World of Work 



Higher Education in the Coming Age of Limits 

by Thomas A. Mulkeen 



The United States, the most productive nation in 
the history of the world, found its unique 
fertility in its vast wilderness. There, on the 
edge of the unknown, the Renaissance qualities of 
independence, self-reliance and initiative interacted 
with the individualism sanctified by the Protestant 
Reformation to create a nation unlike any before it, 
founded on democracy, capitalism, and the crucial 
work ethic. The merger of the ideal and the pragmatic 
along with the notion of progress, potential, and 
opportunity shaped the American character. 

On the frontier, work would destratify society and 
lift men into the propertied class. Progress was the 
product of inventive industriousness; formal learning 
was secondary and condition of birth of small conse- 
quence. A strange and relentless environment condi- 
tioned Americans to deal with the unexpected, forcing 
them to break down traditional social and professional 
barriers. The profession of arms was borne, Indian- 
style, by whole communities of citizen soldiers. Back- 
woods fighting was highly individualistic warfare, 
without rules. The Indian was a skilled, courageous, 
often ruthless guerilla fighter. To survive, the colonist 
had to follow his example. European military etiquette 
disappeared, as did the distinction between officer and 
private and even between soldier and civilian. The 
military profession was only one of the European 
monopolies to be changed. The distinction of the 
British legal profession did not survive intact in the 
new world. The same was true of the medical profes- 
sion. On the frontier the layman had to be prep 
act as lawyer, architect, and physician. The mi 
was not qualified to be a little bit of 
everything was not qualified to be an 
American. 

Thus, the American dream was not 
initially dominated by academic achieve- 
ment and the school credential. Indeed, * 
the most striking characteristic of educa- 
tion in the colonial experience was how 
few individuals went to school. On the 
frontier social mobility was linked to work, not. 
tion. Knowledge was not transmitted by spe 
concentrated in schools and universities, but tl 
the family, religious institutions, and apprentic 
Learners and teachers were dispersed ihroughi 



Projector Thomas A. Mulkeen spent last year in paste 
study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 



entire community. Vigorous young men invested their 
time in the world of work, not the classroom. Formal 
education was viewed as a postponement of the business 
of getting ahead. Thomas Jefferson's friend Benjamin 
Rush explained; "We occupy a new country. Our 
principal business should be to explore and apply its 
resources, all of which presses us to enterprise and 
haste. Under these circumstances to spend two or more 
years learning two dead languages is to turn our backs 
on a gold mine." 

Harvard College was established in 163fi, but it was 
1800 before there were a dozen colleges in the United 
States. In a population of almost four million people 
at the time of the Revolution there were only 2,500 
living college graduates. The paucity of institutions 
suggests their limited role. The handful of colleges 
w r ere religious and elite in character. In pragmatic 
America a college educaiion had a dual role: the 
Calvinist was committed to a learned clergy and a lit- 
erate people; hence the function of the early colleges was 
to provide society with a supply of knowledgeable 
ministers, doctors, and lawyers. As the country moved 
westward, the nineteenth-century towns built their 
own colleges along with their grand hotels and opera 
houses. However, until after the Civil War the United 
States was a rural society composed in great part of 
farmers and shopkeepers aided by a scattering of col- 
lege-educated professionals. Education at all levels was a 
small, fragmented enterprise with little societal impact. 




ared to '"T^'he link between schooling and a better job develop- 

in who _I_ ed as the United States moved from a rural to an 

urban society and from an agrarian toan 
industrialized economy. Industrialization 
demanded skills that neither the family 
nor the church could provide. It was 
under this pressure, during the period 
1850-1870, that higher education as we 
know n began io take shape. During the 
century of the American industrial revolu- 
tion, roughly from 1850 to 1950, higher 
educa- education focused on the goal of turning out a new 

cialists professional and managerial class. In this period 

irough education replaced the frontier in the center of ihe 

?ships. American dream. The university mirrored the society, 

>ut the teaching the ideas necessary to perpetuate American 

values. At the same time, the university began to model 

locioral itself after the factory, producing each year hundreds, 

then thousands, of students with the latest accumula- 



3 



tion of new knowledge and the intellectual skills to 
process and evaluate it. Higher education became a 
sophisticated means for channeling highly trained 
human resources in to the system . In the process college 
became the highroad of upward mobility for the 
growing middle class. By the beginning of the twentieth 
century, formal schooling was widely accepted as the 
institution best able to provide the skilled manpower 
needed by the economic system. At the same time, the 
schools assumed the role of society's sorters, selectors, 
and certifiers. The schools bestowed society's approval 
on some young people, opening opportunities to 
further education that almost inevitably led to good 
jobs and higher social standing. Others were less 
fortunate. They were tracked off to vocational school to 
learn the occupations appropriate to the traits and 
attitudes of the working class. Higher education 
matched the rise of monopoly capitalism with a 
credential monopoly, as the school diploma increas- 
ingly became the singular repository of American 
mobility promises. 

Tax-supported public education was to assist the 
transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, 
The catalyst for this transformation came 
in 1862 with the passage of the Morrill 
Act establishing the land grant colleges. 
These new institutions emphasized the 
development of technical skills and the 
application of scientific principles to 
vocations in agriculture, industry, and 
commerce. The colleges were expected to 
assist the rapid industrialization of the 
United States through training and research related to 
the technical advance of manufacturing. Out of the 
land grant movement came scores of agriculture exper- 
iment stations and farm bureaus with extension agents 
to help farmers with their daily problems. Establish- 
ing the principle that a college education could en- 
compass both a liberal arts component as well as 
practical training, the Morrill Act set the tone for the 
development of American higher education for the 
ensuing hundred years. The land grant spirit, the 
demand for regional usefulness and contemporary 
relev ance, were viewed as expressions of democracy. No 
longer were colleges restricted to the upper classes as 
the emerging ideology promoted a system of higher 
education open to all young men of ability. In reality, 
both higher education and the federal government were 
keeping pace with the economic needs of the society 
they served. 

Two great influences have molded the modern 
American university system. Both have come 
from sources outside the university. Both have come in 
response to public policy initiatives. The first federal 
initiative was the land grant movement, whose begin- 
nings we have sketched. This kind of government 




involvement continued in the years prior to World War 
I, when the land grant institutions extended their 
activi ties beyond their campus boundaries. The U niver- 
sity of Wisconsin entetred the legislative halls in 
Madison with reform programs, supported the trade 
union movement, and developed agriculture extension 
services to a greater extent than ever before. The 
University looked to serve the state and inculcate the 
reform principles of the Progressive movement. Other 
universities did likewise; even private institutions like 
Columbia and Chicago developed important extension 
programs. During World War [, campus-based 
R.O.T.C. programs were established to provide recruits 
for the officer corps. During the depression universities 
and colleges were involved in programs of the Works 
Progress Administration and the National Youth 
Administration. Always pragmatic, the American posi- 
tion for increased access to education was based not 
primarily in a desire for the development of the mind or 
pride in learning or culture for its own sake, but rather 
in the political and economic benefits accruing to the 
nation. 

The second great federal initiative began with govern- 
ment support for scientific research dur- 
ing World War II, as universities partici- 
pated heavily in various programs of 
war-related research. The war laborator- 
ies were the forerunners of continuing 
government-supported university re- 
search centers. After the war, the univer- 
sities were to serve the scientific revolu- 
tion. In the post-Sputnik era the federal 
government turned to educational institutions to close 
the perceived gap' between American and Soviet tech- 
nology. 

From 194.5 to about 1965 labor markets in the United 
Stales were elastic enough to absorb an ever-increasing 
supply of educated workers. In the post-World War II 
era higher education served as a buffer to keep large 
numbers of ex-soldiers off the unemployment lines 
while preparing them for a role in our industrial 
society. The GI Bill of Rights underscored the national 
recourse to public education for dealing with massive 
human power problems. Through the 1960s public 
policy was designed to increase the number of coHege 
graduates and to turn out teachers, engineers, and 
scientists in abundance. Investment in education was 
considered good for the economy and, therefore, good 
economic policy. In addition, social science research 
indicated that investment in education could bring 
about radical social change. It was argued that blacks 
and other minorities would achieve economic inte- 
gration into the American mainstream by access to 
public education right through college. Public policy 
initiatives and federal money supported their access, 
and that of women and the handicapped, to higher 
education and white collar positions. As a result, the 



4 



Hillside Cemetery 


News from here is utterly unlikely. 


This matter goes further than words, really, 


North Adams 


nugatory yatting of language, keys. 




Place, silence are words. 




This place cannot hold them, this escape 




No. 


by Herschel Shohan 




Weathers, 




snows, the rain of Saturdays, Monday's rare sky 




out of bounds. 




What is the end of this spatter of light, 




this flicker of syllables that recedes? 




But for us it does not recede, this boundary. 




Sense and syntax counter, give weight and point to 




This gesture, this posture, these random posts 




That gather our confusion, generating this hillside lean, 




This falling over, this odd-angled sowing. 




Something wide seems pinned down here 




With stone pins. The marble and granite shafts 




To pierce something, though not the thing 




In pieces around us. Its signs are 




White words spoken and spoken 




Tablets with a finger-end 




Roundness, a blank kneeling angel on its stock signaling 




A transition dumb to a live ear, a music of possibilities 




Going on. 




Going on 




We lean toward a finickyness, fragile invention: 




There's a solitude, meantime, that moves 


Herschel Shohan is 


Is moved 


Assistant Professor of English. 


finally. 



offered by most college programs. Our mature, com- 
plex economic system has become dependent on the 
technology we have developed. In less than half a 
century the airplane changed the rules of warfare, 
politics, and business. Only four decades separated 
Rutherford's discoveries in radioactive disintegration 
from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The first 
humans landed on the moon a short eight years after 
the first manned orbital flight around the earth. The 
new electronic, biological, nuclear, and solar technol- 
ogies are dramatically altering our society. 

The colleges and universities, part of the larger 
revolution that transformed our nation from an 
agrarian to an industrial power, are not now changing 
rapidly enough to keep pace with the technological 
age. The typical curriculum of the American college 
has not changed substantially since the turn of the 
century. Thus, at a time when education has consoli- 



median number of years of school completed rocketed 
upward, and between 1952 and 1972 college 
enrollment expanded from 2.6 million to 8.4 million. 

TN the last hundred years the United States has become 
A the richest nation on earth, striving to make good 
the promise to its immigrant people that their livelihood 
would be better and to its youth that the quality ol life 
would improve. But no economic trends run on 
eternally. It is now becoming clear that the ever- 
expanding supply of educated workers is running up 
against a ceiling of job demand. Some observers have 
suggested that from an economic standpoint the value 
of an investment in a college degree has diminished. 
The world of work has undergone a far-reaching 
metamorphosis. The most striking change has been in 
the technical and managerial fields where new posi- 
tions demand highly technical skills beyond the level 



5 



dated its role in training, socializing, and selecting the 
work force, the curriculum remains entrenched in the 
past. The impact of technology on the workplace, the 
changing circumstances of physical resources, the rise 
of new social expectations, and the dramatic new 
participation of women in the labor market have 
resulted in a disjuncture between what is expected in 
the workplace and what col lege graduates are prepared 
to do. Degrees become insignificant in a world in 
which skills arc quickly outdated. The apparent ina- 
bility of schooling to meet new training needs has led 
many employers to take on a larger share of the training 
function- Bell Telephone alone spends more than $700 
million a year on training, and a host of new institu- 
tions offering specialized training programs have been 
organized in recent years. 

The American experience has been shaped by expan- 
sion. Our national development has rested on the 
premise of limitless supplies of low-cost energy. But 
the era of cheap energy — the Petroleum Age — is over 
and the frontier has closed. These two events, not yet 
fully perceived, are causing a fundamental shift in the 
psychology of the American people. As personal 
frontiers shut down, as possibilities and opportunities 
are limited and freedom of movement is curtailed, the 
deeply rooted viewpoints of Americans will be drasti- 
cally modified. At the same time, the failure of many 
educated people to achieve their career goals and the 
diminishing ability of the educationally less favored to 
improve their position could produce a discouraged 
and disgruntled attitude in a large share of the popula- 
tion — with potentially dangerous consequences to the 
nation. 

Historian Ray Billington has commented that we 
reached the upper limit of our high standard of living 
in the watershed decade of the 1970s and that we have 
already entered an evolutionary phase of revaluation 
whose end is many years or decades, even as much as a 
century, away. One of the consequences may be an 
extension of governmental control as scarce resources 
dwindle and government is forced to use 
compulsion in order to meet its obliga- 
tions. Already, businessmen and econo- 
mists are insisting that the private sector 
demands faster capital formation, a pro- 
cess that diverts funds from consumers 
and social services and thus reduces both 
the standard of living and the quality of 
life. 

What does this mean for higher edu- 
cation? The colleges and univer- 
sities are rapidly getting out of synchron- 
ization with a society profoundly troubled 




by critical survival issues; where they once led, they 
now trail behind. The frequent incidence of mismatch 
between a worker's educational qualifications and his 
employment prospects will significantly alter people's 
attitudes toward the value of education for status and 
career advancemen t. Federal projections show a prospec- 
tive surplus of some one million college graduates in 
relation to national economic needs. A Joint Economic- 
Committee labor study released in 1978 predicted that 
the surplus will mean relatively few opportunities for 
new graduates through the year 2000. Hence, the decay 
of higher education's traditional role as social selector 
and certifier seems as inevitable as the continued 
growth of alternative routes to economic advancement. 

What changes must necessarily be made if American 
higher education is to survive in some proximity to its 
present size? A society relying on high technology will 
require greater functional flexibility of virtually every 
American adult. This will demand of colleges and 
universities a new approach in the way students are 
prepared for professional careers. Learning how to 
learn will be progressively more important. Accord- 
ingly, students must expect to use the degree portion of 
their studies to acquire process skills rather than facts, 
and the curriculum must shift from a knowledge base 
to a process base. The "basics" cannot be an end in 
themselves but must be susceptible to explanation 
through a familiarity with the process. Nor can educa- 
tion cease with the granting of a degree; institutional 
and faculty resources will have to be committed to 
lifelong learning activities as academic institutions 
will be expected to offer opportunities for learning 
renewal to its graduates. 

Serving adults in transition will work a fundamental 
transformation of the entire academic community. The 
adult requires pedagogic approaches quite different 
from those suitable to the traditional college student. 
The curriculum must be able to offer a series of 
individually articulated goals shaped to meet the needs 
of personal growth and professional re- 
direction. At issue is the ability of the 
campuses to accommodate to a new set of 
learning requirements with a reorganized 
curriculum and new teaching methods. 

Since the establishment of the land 
grant institutions, American higher educa- 
tion has pragmatically served the eco- 
nomic needs of society. As that society 
enters a period of deep change, the chal- 
lenge to higher education is to move 
again into a position of leadership by- 
addressing the problems of social transi- 
tion in the postindustrial world. 



Robert Bishoff on films 



Last Summer in Vietnam . . . North Carolina . . . Three Mile Island 



~w- 1 there is a significant trend that can be noted 
in American movies at the turn of the decade, 
A. it seems to be found in a renewed and growing 
emphasis on subjects that deal with important sociopoli- 
tical concerns. The Muppet Movie, Star Trek, and 
Woody Allen's personal black and white version of 
Manhattan notwithstanding, the major works of 1979 
have included a number of "contemporary issues" 
movies. 

Among the more notable early examples of this trend 
are four movies that enjoyed an almost continuous 
screening over the last summer in the Berkshires. These 
films, The Deerhunler, Coming Home, Norma Rat-, 
and The China Syndrome can be labeled as "contem- 
porary American issues movies." Grouped into a body 
as they were this past summer, they invite and encour- 
age one to seek commonalities among them. For me, 
this search resulted in some interesting 
and provocative observations about the 
current Hollywood approach to sociopoli- 
tical problems. 

The compelling question which arises 
when these four films are collectively 
presented is what, if any, connection can 
be made betw r een past wounds remember- 
ed of the Vietnam experience, present 
struggles and uncertainties regarding job 
satisfaction and financial security, and 
futuristic nightmares ol nuclear disaster. 
Interestingly, the answer that emerges 
seems to rest in a reaffirmation of a 
traditional American approach to socio- 
political issues and problems. The quality 
that stands out most predominantly in The Deer hunter, 
Coming Home, Norma Rae, and The China Syndrome 
is a tendency to particularize and individualize public- 
concerns. In each of these films the central issues may- 
be collective and societal, but the conflicts, struggles, 
and ultimate solutions are personal and individual. 

I suppose that the subject ol the Vietnam conflict — or 
conflicts — might now be termed a "cold" issue in 
political terms, but it has, over the past year, become a 
"hot" subject fot the movies. If nothing else, the 
summer screenings of Coming Home and The Deer- 
hunter did probably warm us up a bit for the eventual 
arrival of Francis Ford Coppola's long delayed, highly 
publicized epic version of Vietnam as Apocalypse 



Robert Bishoff, Instructor of English, 
is a specialist in film and drama- 




Now. More than this, though, I think that together 
these two films did touch on something near to the 
heart of the legacy of the Vietnam experience, some- 
thing more basic than a "cold" political issue. The plot 
of The Deerhunler is basically concerned with the 
effects of the experience of the Vietnam conflict on a 
group ol young Pennsylvania steel workers, and Com- 
ing Home deals with the aftermaths of the conflict on 
an embittered disabled veteran, a career military officer, 
and the woman who loved them both. More important- 
ly, however, The Deerhunler and Coming Home are 
also about disintegration of community, severing of 
unions, loss of direction, and, finally, the individual in 
isolation. The style of the two films is a study in 
contrasts and provides apt analogies for the ways 
America — and American movies — tend too often to 
approach issues of general public concern. The Deer- 
hunter is brash, sprawling, exciting, loud 
and ambiguous; Coming Home is "sin- 
cere." Neither approach does much more 
to create significant art than it does to 
make ideal politics, butasa substitute lot- 
real substance it has often been a main- 
stay of both. However, while the style of 
these two films is radically different, the 
conclusions presented by each are strik- 
ingly similar. 

The result of the Vietnam experience 
in The Deerhunler is not the emergence 
of a viable ethnic community of Russian- 
American compatriots, but of a small 
band of individuals attempting to resub- 
merge themselves into their own vague 
concept of the larger American society. Coming Home 
does not conclude with the emergence of a fraternal 
order ol paraplegic veterans or liberated housewives or 
displaced soldiers, but with three individuals confront- 
ing individual isolation. A perceptive colleague of 
mine remarked that the first hour of The Deerhunler 
reminded her of the strong sense of community fellow- 
ship conveyed in Fiddler on the Roof, but that she did 
not know what to make of that ending scene of a small 
band ol frightened individuals joining voices in a verse 
of "God Bless America." Nor do 1 know what to make 
of it. Or, for that matter, do I know what to make of the 
ending of Coming Home when, as Luke addresses a 
group of high school students on the horrors of war, 
and a naked Bob walks out into the sea, Sally goes in the 
"OUT" door at the supermarket. But, maybe that is the 
point — maybe not knowing what to make of the 
collapse ol old communities, of old directions, is what 



7 



we find somewhere near the heart of the Vietnam 
legacy. If old communities and old directions have 
collapsed as these films suggest they have, then we are 
left with only the individuals who survive. What we 
make of that depends on who these individuals are. At 
the end of Coming Home and The Deerhunter, we 
don't know who they are for they don't know who they 
are. 

Ironically Norma Rae, a film which deals with the 
issue of unionization, creates its thematic substance 
through the very discovery and revelation of individual 
self-knowledge lacking in the two Vietnam films. 
Ostensibly Norma Rae is about the attempts of a textile 
union to organize in a small North Carolina town; in 
truth it is about an Eastern Jewish liberal union 
organizer aivakening a sense of personal integrity and 
self-knowledge in a southern Protestant woman. In an 
interview after receiving the Cannes Best Actress Award 
for her performance as Norma Rae, Sally Field argued 
for this point, but went on to say that the film was, 
therefore, not a political statement. However, by tradi- 
tional American definition, individuals are the very 
basis of the political structure, and the awakening of a 
sense of personal integrity and self-knowledge is a 
profound political act. The fact that Norma Rae is not 
about the textile union moving en masse into a small 
southern community to effect political change and 
social betterment nor even about the recruitment of a 
new member to the ranks of radical feminism is, 
consequently, precisely what makes it a traditional 
American political film. Like the other three films in 
the repertory, the central conflicts in Norma Rae are 
individual and personal; the movement ts from naive 
innocence to bewildered awareness, and the conclusion 
relies on actions born of individual self-knowledge. 
The substance in Norma Rae — which, in contrast to 
The Deerhunter and Coming Home, is a small, quiet, 
unassuming film — comes about through the revela- 
tion of individual strength and assurance capable of 
withstanding changing directions and disintegrating 
communities. The climactic moment in the film is the 
image of a woman standing alone on a table in the 
center of a textile plant holding up a handpainted sign 
reading "UNION." That ironic and incongruous 
image is, I think, as effective a symbol of traditional 
American political philosophy as one might hope to 
find. Somewhere in that link between the solitary 
individual and union lies the basis of the American 
democratic experiment. 

Nowhere in these four films is there a better 
example of a reaffirmation of the American belief 
in individualism, however, than in The China Syn- 
drome. The plot of The China Syndrome is, of course, 
concerned with what could have happened at Three 
Mile Island. (It is at the very least ironic that the film 



was released before the accident occurred in Pennsyl- 
vania.) The central theme of the film, though, is 
introduced in an obvious way through a slip of the 
tongue early in the action as the news reporter por- 
trayed by Jane Fonda refers to a nuclear power plant as 
an example of "selfish sufficiency" rather than the 
intended "self-sufficiency." 

The final statement of the film seems to be that the 
greatest threat to traditional American political values 
is the possibility of self-sufficiency becoming "selfish 
sufficiency." If The Deerhunter and Coming Home are 
about the rediscovery of a need for individual self- 
sufficiency, and Norma Rae is about the creation of 
individual self-sufficiency, then The China Syndrome 
is about what to do and not to do with self-sufficiency. 
The China Syndrome is about the healthy ambition of 
genuine professionalism, about the effective will of a 
free press, about the importance of loyalty, about the 
value of friendship, about respect, and, most of all, 
about individual and persona] moral integrity. The 
plot of The China Syndrome is not resolved by an 
aroused mass of enraged citizens rising up to overthrow 
the conscienceless capitalists but by individual moral 
righteousness, stone-fisted sincerity, and a strong sense 
of personal professionalism. 

Since this plot resolution seems to rest in the 
reaffirmation of traditional American values, it is 
really not too surprising that it also sounds like the 
conclusion to a John Wayne movie. If the post- 
Vietnam era of direclionlessness and individual isola- 
tion has created a new sort of frontier experience, then 
perhaps it is fair to draw some parallels between, say, 
the last five minutes of Stagecoach when John Wayne 
rights injustice and restores moral order with five 
quick shots from his carbine and the last five minutes of 
The China Syndrome when a lone news reporter armed 
with moral righteousness, professional integrity, and a 
television camera performs much the same feat. Per- 
haps I might even suggest that the torch has been 
passed, that the symbol of traditional American politi- 
cal thought which John Wayne's screen image became 
emerges once again in The China Syndrome in the 
unlikely person of Jane Fonda. It's a provocative 
thought, worthy of some intellectual and emotional 
consideration. 

As other examples of this trend toward contemporary- 
issues movies become evident, intellectual and emo- 
tional considerations continue to be provoked. Recent 
outstanding models of the art of film, such as Apoca- 
lypse Now, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Kramer 
vs. Kramer are, at their base, illustrative of the same 
traditional approach to issues as The Deerhunter, 
Coming Home, Norma Rae, and The China Syndrome. 
The perfect summation of the genre is expressed in The 
Electric Horseman when Jane Fonda, playing yet 
another well-armed newscaster, says, "I started out on 
this trip to get a news story but ended up following an 
individual man on a private destination toward a 
personal goal."